It may be something of a cliché that a fight against relegation requires throwing lots of ‘battlers’ out onto the pitch, but Fulham certainly signalled their intent that way in the January transfer window, ridding themselves of the mercurial talents of Dimitar Berbatov, Bryan Ruiz and Adel Taarabt and bringing in the more all-action approach epitomised by Lewis Holtby, Johnny Heitinga and William Kvist (who clearly relishes his opportunity in the Premier League whatever the circumstances, having described his first training session with the club as ‘perfect’). Time will tell whether that was the right approach, but the early signs seem promising. While Heitinga was largely outshone by his centre half partner Dan Burn, Holtby combined industry with quality to set up Sidwell’s goal, and Kvist was snappy in central midfield.
Breaking long term hoodoos at Old Trafford is somewhat in vogue this season, and while the initial impression today was that Fulham could have done their chances of breaking an 11 match losing streak there a bit better by being a bit more adventurous – their nominal 4-4-2 quickly became more of a 4-4-2-0 as both Holtby and Muamer Tanković (and then Bent) tracked further and further back – it was difficult to argue with the approach once they had gone 1-0 up. Rene Meulensteen spoke before the game about a need for more energy, and they needed every ounce of it to repel United as much as they did. If they can harness that for the last 13 games, there may still be hope of salvation.
There were three Englishmen on show at Old Trafford who spent their formative years in United’s academy set up. Unfortunately for those with fond memories of the Class of 92 (such as Ryan Giggs, who spent the game on the bench), all three were playing for the away team. Fulham picked up Ryan Tunnicliffe and Larnell Cole, two of the latest off the Carrington production line, in the January transfer window; Tunnicliffe was called into action on a number of occasions as all hands went to the pump for the Cottagers before being substituted for Scott Parker after an hour, while Cole saw around ten minutes of action in the aftermath of the turnaround. Neither had much of a chance to truly show their worth. Kieran Richardson’s career, meanwhile, has meandered somewhat since his brief period in the national squad in 2005/6, but he epitomised the effort which Fulham put in throughout, breaking the full length of the field on more than one occasion in support of their (albeit rare) counter-attacks. If United are going to rediscover the glory days which already seem so far away, and with their well-documented financial situation in mind, they would be well-advised to look to their academy. Tunnicliffe, Richardson and Cole were not the answer. Who will make the step up?
With Martin Jol being usurped by Rene Meulensteen and now Alan Curbishley and Ray Wilkins waiting in the wings for Fulham, there is a sense of a leadership vacuum at Craven Cottage. And with Parker and Brede Hangeland starting on the bench, there was a vacancy for someone to take control of their fate. Enter Steve Sidwell. He was everywhere, particularly in the first half, including a clearance off the line which could only really be explained by sheer willpower, and he seized the opportunity which fell his way to put his team ahead. But while the pressure from them was relentless, there was little of the same for United. While he was generally strong today (and made Holtby fully aware of his ongoing commitment in a particularly vigorous aerial challenge with twenty minutes to go), they will do well to avoid Nemanja Vidic’s authority being diminished by his teammates knowing he is leaving at the end of the season, and with the manager under pressure, the Red Devils need someone to step up. Carrick and Fletcher were their usual metronomic and industrious selves respectively, but neither truly took the game by the scruff of the neck. Rooney was committed but not commanding, and the abdication of responsibility for Sidwell’s goal in particular was staggering. These were the games which United always used to find a way to win. If they are to become an unstoppable force again, they need an immovable object. But who is that going to be?
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